NASA’s Juno spacecraft will get cozy with Jupiter this weekend, as the vehicle makes its closest approach to the gas giant early Saturday morning at 8:51AM ET. Juno, which is in orbit around Jupiter, will come within 2,500 miles of the planet’s clouds — the closest the probe will get during its mission. It will also be the first time that Juno passes by Jupiter with all of its instruments turned on, meaning NASA is about to get a bunch of juicy new data.
The spacecraft’s path around the planet is a bit unconventional
Juno has been in orbit around Jupiter since July 4th, but it hasn’t done a ton of analysis of the planet since then. That’s because the spacecraft’s path around the planet is a bit unconventional. Jupiter is surrounded by belts of intense radiation, which can easily fry the instruments of any passing spacecraft. So to avoid getting toasted, Juno is in a highly elliptical orbit around Jupiter that helps the vehicle avoid the worst areas of radiation. The orbit takes 53 days to complete, though, and Juno is only close to Jupiter for a few hours of that time.
That means Juno spends most of its orbit far out from Jupiter before it swings by the planet — what NASA calls a Perijove pass. The spacecraft will do 36 of these passes during its mission, but this is the first one Juno will do with all of its instruments on. When Juno put itself into Jupiter’s orbit on the Fourth, NASA turned off the vehicle’s instruments to make sure nothing interfered with the insertion process. But its instruments have been turned on since then, and now the spacecraft is ready to do some science. "We have checked Juno from stem to stern and back again," said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno, in a statement. "We still have more testing to do, but we are confident that everything is working great, so for this upcoming flyby Juno's eyes and ears, our science instruments, will all be open."
A dual view of Jupiter taken by Juno on August 23rd, when the spacecraft was 2.8 million miles away. (NASA)
That means we’ll soon get our first up close images of Jupiter taken from the vehicle’s onboard camera, JunoCam, and NASA researchers will get their first significant round of data gathered by Juno’s instruments. That data will help NASA learn more about Jupiter than ever before. Juno’s instruments are designed to gather key details about the planet, such as how much water is in its atmosphere and whether or not there is a core lurking beneath its surface. These features will help researchers better understand how and when Jupiter formed.
That data will help NASA learn more about Jupiter than ever before
It may be a while before we get those answers though. The data gathered during this Perijove pass will be downlinked to Earth over the next couple of days, but it will be "some time" before the results are analyzed and interpreted. However, NASA says it will release pictures from JunoCam later next week, so stay tuned for some of the most magnificent close-ups of the biggest planet in the Solar System.